Photographs Reveal Lost Cemetery
by Sunny Merik, Public Affairs
When renovations began on the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1992, little did anyone think that a macabre world would be unearthed. But as floors were raised and earth removed, human bones began to surface.
Beneath the stately Corinthian and Ionic columns of the palace designed for exhibiting European art and culture, lay the remains of 750 burials bones and skeletons and redwood caskets a potters field of the poor.
Photographer Richard Barnes, 79, who captured the mystery of the Legion of Honor discovery in haunting black-and-white photographs, will discuss his Still Rooms & Excavations exhibit at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at Hearst Museum. His presentation, which is free, is part of California Archaeology Week.
Im captivated by the idea of the existence of a past that refuses to depart completely, says Barnes, but instead lies buried, quietly insisting, with the help of archaeologists, to interrupt the seeming continuum of our collective present.
For those who view Barness photographs, the juxtaposition of Neoclassical architecture and human skulls and ribs inevitably form the question: is this a museum or a mausoleum?
Barnes, who studied fine art at Berkeley, then changed his major and graduated with a degree in journalism, brings both sensibilities to his Still Rooms & Excavations exhibition.
Although the forgotten graveyard and its anonymous cadavers were supposed to be relocated to South San Francisco decades ago, apparently only their headstones made the move.
Barnes sees his Legion of Honor photographic presentation as a continuation of eight years of work in Egypt and Lebanon, photographing archaeological excavations.
While working at the Legion of Honor I was struck by the apparent contradiction of a museum that both preserves and erases, he said. How does an institution determine what is to be saved and (thus) validated, and what is to be discarded and forgotten? Whose past is worthy of collection and preservation, and whose is expendable, and why?
The forgotten graveyard for poor laborers of Chinese, French and other ethnic backgrounds contains a wealth of lost history and forgotten stories.
Barness elegant photographs remind us of this fact.
Still Rooms & Excavations has been exhibited at San Diegos Museum of Photographic Arts and San Francisco Camerawork and featured in San Francisco Examiner Magazine.
For information on Barness talk, call Laurie Reyes at (510) 643-7648, ext. 3.
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